India launches first privately made rocket

A six-minute flight by a test rocket carrying three mock payloads made history on Friday in a nation that places dozens of satellites in space every year—it was India’s first private space mission.

Space startup Skyroot Aerospace launched its maiden demonstrator mission at 11.30 am from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh.

The Vikram-S rocket soared to a distance of 89.5km from Earth before splashing into the Bay of Bengal just after 11:36am. The suborbital mission, named Prarambh (beginnings), was a success.

“Mission Prarambh is successfully accomplished. Congratulations SkyrootA, Congratulations India!” tweeted the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).

The mission was a technology demonstrator, typically the initial space mission conducted in the lead up to an actual flight.

The Skyroot mission was enabled by India’s draft space communications policy, which opened up the domestic space sector to private firms. The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (In-Space), a nodal authorization body under the government’s department of space (DoS), authorized Skyroot to conduct the launch mission. Isro offered its facilities under a transfer of technology clause that is expected to be part of India’s eventual space policy.

Industry stakeholders said the success of Skyroot’s mission would help validate India’s fledgling private space sector. Anil Kumar Bhatt, director general of industry body Indian Space Association, said the launch will “validate most of the technologies in the Vikram series of space launch vehicles planned by Skyroot in the coming years.”

“Successful launch of indigenously developed and built low-earth orbit launch vehicle will propel private multi-billion space tech investments and accelerate delivery of constellations for new India like agriculture tech, energy transition and smart city infra,” said Mahesh Kolli, co-founder and joint managing director of green energy firm Greenko, which has invested in Skyroot.

The mission is a precursor to commercial launch missions that Skyroot Aerospace plans to undertake next year alongside other homegrown space firms such as Agnikul Cosmos.

At the launch event of Vikram-S, a spokesperson for In-Space said a similar demonstrator launch for Agnikul Cosmos’ domestically built satellite launcher, Agnibaan, is expected in coming months.

Missions such as these, according to industry estimates, are expected to help India capture a larger chunk of the global commercial space economy, which presently stands at below 2%.

However, to do this, cost-effectiveness would be key. Chaitanya Giri, a space-tech expert at government-affiliated policy think tank Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), said that for a firm like Skyroot, the next step would be to validate the cost factor of its launch vehicles.

“With future orbital missions, Indian ventures such as Skyroot would be competing with similar offerings around the world—such as Rocket Lab, as well as multiple private ventures across EU. This would make the cost factor imperative. There could also be the need for reusability, such as the Vikram-III launcher that would come later,” Giri said.

The Vikram-S launcher was powered by a Kalam-80 solid propellant motor. Last week, at the announcement of the mission, Pawan Chandana, chief executive of Skyroot Aerospace, told Mint that Kalam-80 is a version of the Kalam-100 motor that is expected to be used in the firm’s Vikram-I rocket—expected to be the first commercial satellite deployer for the company.

Chandana said Friday’s launch validated the company’s 3D printed solid fuel motor and carbon fibre body. In June, the executive confirmed that the company 3D prints its engines from additive manufacturing facilities in Bengaluru and Chennai. Once demand builds up, Skyroot would also look to build its own 3D printing engine manufacturing facility—akin to what Agnikul Cosmos unveiled in July this year.


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